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Failure in Art as a Benchmark for Success

It hasn't exactly been a banner week for me in the studio. If it has been, the banner is something like this:


I mean, in theory, there have been some fundamental successes, but they haven't come in the form of sale-able paintings that I love, let's put it that way.

I started the week by breaking out some black canvas that I had laying around with the intent to see how well some of my favorite inks and pigments would show up on them, after a long hiatus working on canvas. Canvas is tricky biz with alcohol inks, compared to working on Yupo and other nonporous surfaces, which are a little more forgiving and provide pretty consistent results for me these days, so it takes a certain kind of energy to know that I'm going into something with a high likelihood of failing to produce a desirable outcome. But I was feeling spontaneous, I guess, which was a welcome attitude after I-don't-know-how-long of feeling uninspired and flooded with self doubt about my capacity as an artist. I actually had motivation, and beyond that, motivation to do something new, not just rehash familiar territory.

And the first painting I did - larger than I usually work, and with rusty muscle memory for working on the chosen medium - yielded a painting that I was immediately in love with. I photographed it, proudly uploaded it to Instagram and a couple of facebook groups, and celebrated a studio win. Man, my ego felt great, and I forgot about feeling nervous about the certitude of failure when forging ahead into unknown creative territory, because, my ego told me I was a good artist. 

Oil Spill #1

Oil Spill #1

And that's when it all started to go downhill. 

So enthused that I had captured something exciting and new in the studio, I was determined to immediately embark on making a whole slew of these paintings. So back into the studio I went, and for the next week I produced nothing but trash, wasted countless hours and more materials than I'm willing to consider. I spray painted over painting after painting that I couldn't bear to look at. I beat my head against a wall trying to recapture the results of the first success (the process for which I had conveniently failed to record for future reference), despite using - I was pretty sure - the same inks, the same tools, the same methods. 

Every day, new failures, and new opportunities to rake myself over the coals. I was a hack, I couldn't reproduce results. What kind of artist was I, anyway? "A bad one," my brain answered, "You are a bad artist. Good artists don't just do something well once and then make a bunch of garbage. Good artists can reproduce results." And I answered back by creating more bad paintings, and wasting more time and materials, over and over again, every day. Torturing myself in pursuit of recapturing whatever I had stumbled upon with the first painting earlier that week. 

And slowly, the paintings got less bad. The materials became a known quantity. I started to hone in on the methods. I approached an ability to produce a predictable end result. I made one or two more paintings that I didn't hate, and spared the paint can. 


See, I've held myself at the alter of spontaneous creative genius for as long as I've been creating, and it's been a Very Bad Habit in desperate need of breaking. My favorite pieces tend to be those that came out of nowhere and took me by surprise, so suddenly that I couldn't make sense of what I had done or what I had ended up with. But that kind of kismet isn't easy (actually it's probably impossible) to harness and predict. And it doesn't foster a huge body of work, or a honed set of technical or creative skills, since it leaves as suddenly as it came upon you, and then you're stuck waiting for the muses to descend again for the next work of art that you don't hate before you get back to creating again. It doesn't foster a habit of practice. It doesn't force you to learn your lessons. And it makes it hard to get good. 

It's a lot less sexy to admit that being an artist isn't really about being a vessle, or that repeatable success doesn't come through spontaneous liaison with the muses to channel your inner, untapped genius into masterpieces, but through cultivating an obsessive, hard-nosed dedication to showing up and putting in the work. Unfortunately for the prevailing mythology of the artist, that's the reality of being a creative, at least, a creative who has much to show for their efforts. The thing is, you have to make a lot of efforts. And a lot of them are going to be....*ahem* learning experiences rather than roaring successes, at least for a while, and maybe most of the time, depending on how often you like to reinvent the wheel in your creative pursuits (for me, it's often). You're going to make a lot of trash. You're going to be surrounded by things that you've made that aren't good enough. Because even if you get it right the first time out of the gate, chances are that without a lot of practice and a lot of failures to learn from, you're not going to be able to do *that* again, whatever *that* was. 

This is no easy task for me. Not because I'm lazy and hate work (although I certainly have all the procrastinatory tendencies to be human), but because what compels me to be an abstract visual artist is the rush of discovery that I get when I'm creating something with open parameters. I have a sincere admiration for representational artwork, but when it comes to my own creative energies, I enjoy having a conversation with the chaos of my chosen media. I like to leave myself open to spontaneity. I get bored with strict representation in my own work. And I get bored doing the same thing over and over again. And I'm a success junkie (like, aren't we all?). All together, this adds up to: I have a pretty hard time if I'm not making something completely novel every time I'm in the studio and doing a great job at it every time. Forcing myself to accept failure is painful. Forcing myself to keep working on an idea over and over again while I keep failing as many times as I try in the name of improving my skills is nearly impossible. I hate looking at my failures, and when you're in the process of failing at visual art, you end up surrounded by a lot of ugly art, so looking at your failures isn't simply a figurative experience, it's very literal. But it's fundamentally necessary. Having a productive conversation with chaos takes the skills. And the skills don't come out of thin air. You gotta put in the work to develop them. 

So, I'm going to keep failing. I'm going to keep being a bad artist who makes unbearable paintings, spray painting over them, and trying again until I do things that I'm happy with, until I learn my lessons and can approach a state of ~knowing what I'm doing~. Hey, even the Mona Lisa has versions that DaVinci painted over underneath it. Without our failures, we don't learn the lessons that translate into greater successes. So go make some bad art. You never know what you'll learn, or where you'll end up.  

artAlyssa TrimmerComment